SING A SONG
Shvi'i shel Pesach-5772
Rabbi David Walk
When the animated move Prince of Egypt came out in 1998, I was living in
Biblical poetry is similar to all poetry in the fact that it uses many elegant grammatical forms, which are uncommon in prose, like similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, and meter or rhythm. However, there are some features of Biblical poetry which are not common to other poetry. The most obvious is the structure of the columns of text. In biblical poetry one can immediately recognize that it's poetry because of regular spacing in the lines which form a structure looking like bricks or, sometimes, columns. I believe that this custom began because we were being informed that this was poetic material and must be dealt with differently. These sections call for more ingenuity on our part to parse the verses for even deeper levels of meaning. Now these interpretations can go in many directions and may be unique for each poem, but I think that two themes emerge from Biblical poetry. And I think that these two motifs can be discovered from the poetry of Pesach, especially from the Seder, but strongly pushed in the Song of the Sea.
At the Seder we split the recitation of the poetic material, namely Hallel, into two parts. We recite two chapters of Hallel connected to the recitation of the story before the meal, and then we recite a lot more of Hallel after the meal, as a fitting ending to the formal Seder service. There are many opinions about how this material was split and much has been written about why, because of our excitement, we can't wait to recite the Hallel Psalms until after the meal. But I don't want to talk about any of that stuff. I believe that the early poems are about the past and the later poems are about the present and future, in other words: us. At the beginning of the Seder we say, 'If the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our fathers out of
I think this reality is true of all Biblical poetry. Some are about the past and some the future. The poems about the past, whose goal is to get us excited about these past events, I would like to call Az Yashir poems. That enigmatic phrase which can be translated 'then one will sing,' is an odd version of the future tense, because the song was sung in the past (This phrase is repeated in Numbers 21:17.), but it anticipates a future in which the offspring of the original singers will continue to chant these words. This is important because we're being informed that these past events must eternally resonate within the Jewish nation. They will remain relevant until the end of time.
On the other hand the poems about the future are called a new song or shir chadash. That phrase, which appears most famously at the beginning of Psalm 149 (and appears twice in the Seder), is recited daily in the traditional morning service. It is King David's way of telling us that we must continue his practice of singing God's praises for the miracles, large and small, which we all encounter in our lives. It teaches us to be on the lookout for the finger of God (sometimes the whole hand) throughout our lives. We must believe that the God of the Bible continues to guide our destiny.
This idea corresponds to a famous idea of Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik. In discussing the Ninth of Av, the Rav taught that there is old mourning and new mourning. Old mourning is when the Sages instruct us to feel bad about ancient events, like the Kinot of Tisha B'av. New mourning is when we suffer personal loss, and doesn't require rabbinic encouragement. Similarly, we have old praise for ancient miracles, and new praise for modern day wonders. This new praise sometimes needs to be encouraged, because we often give credit to everyone but God for our contemporary victories.
Pesach and its many songs and poems require us to sing both kinds of poems. We sing of ancient redemption at the Seder, and long ago love in Shir haShirim, but we must feel those emotions again today. And so this Friday, we both sing of the historical splitting of the Sea, and scan our landscape for the modern wonders. May our search and our song be inspirational! Chag Sameach!
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